Outdoors In The Land O' Lakes

I have strong childhood memories of gathering bluish hairy caterpillars and keeping them in jars until I became bored with that pursuit and my mother quietly released my captives.  My attention span at the time wasn’t long enough to see what they would have become if I had looked after them longer. It turns out they were forest tent caterpillars.  If I had had more patience and watched them until they changed into adults, I would have been rewarded with a rather dull, medium-sized, reddish-brown moth.  In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been much of a reward, so having plenty of other things to do with my precious summer probably saved me considerable disappointment. We have two species of tent caterpillars in our area – the…

The Poplars

Written by  |  Wednesday, 31 May 2017 13:49  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Poplars are widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere and are found in every province of Canada.  Fast growing and prolific, they are the first trees to regenerate in areas devastated by forest fires. Regeneration occurs by means of suckers sent up from the roots and a few sprout quickly from stumps. Most people dismiss poplars as weed trees but they are actually wonders of nature.  Biologists praise them for their natural ability to clean up contaminated soil and water.  Poplar roots are particularly good at sucking up contaminates from soil and water and breaking down notorious chemicals into compounds that dissipate slowly over time.  Once in contact with agricultural herbicides used in Canada on corn crops, the tree actually creates a less harmful by-product by…

Turtles on the move

Written by  |  Wednesday, 19 April 2017 14:13  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Of Ontario’s eight native species of turtles, seven are at risk of extinction.  Many people may not recognize the need to protect these shy, quiet animals but they are an integral part of our wetland and aquatic environments whether they are predator or prey. They are among the longest-lived organisms on the planet (some species in Ontario can live to be more than 90 years old). As an example, snapping turtles can take up to 20 years to mature but, once mature, snappers can expect to live up to another 100 years (but this seldom happens).  Mortality of eggs and hatchlings is often 100%.  It is amazing that any of these animals survive at all given the problems they face, mostly from human activity.  …

Muskrats

Written by  |  Wednesday, 01 March 2017 11:42  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
The proper name for a Muskrat is Ondatra Zibethicus (Ondatra is the Iroquois name for Muskrat and Zibethicus is Latin for “musky-odoured”).  Muskrats, like the beaver, range over most of the North American continent, except for the Arctic tundra.   Muskrats look like very small beavers although they are not at all closely related.  They have a similar dark, glossy brown coat but are considerably smaller with the head, body and tail measuring a maximum length of 16” to 28” (40 – 70 cm) whereas a beaver could be as large as 43” (109 cm) or more.  A Muskrat may weigh a total of 1.5 kg whereas a beaver can weigh 27 kg. – big difference!  The tail is not beaver-like but is long and scaly,…
About 25 years or so ago, my wife and I took part in our first Christmas bird count.  We were assigned an area within the urban boundary of Ottawa, and when the big day dawned, clear and cold, we pulled on our warmest boots and headed out to find some birds.  Nowadays, we take part in 2 Christmas bird counts near where we currently live – the Westport and Sharbot Lakes Christmas Bird Counts. Christmas bird counts go back to 1900, when American ornithologist Frank Chapman asked birders across North America to head out on Christmas Day to count the birds in their home towns and submit the results as the first "Christmas Bird Census." The Christmas Bird Count, as it is now called (and…

Preparing for Winter

Written by  |  Wednesday, 11 January 2017 12:57  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
It’s four years since this column first appeared in the newspaper but, after receiving an inquiry from a reader, I thought it would be interesting to provide this information again. A small white face pushes up through the snow, its small black eyes gleaming. The long slender body comes next. It is probably one of the three main species of weasels that inhabit our area. They are: the Short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), the Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) and the less common Least weasel (Mustela nivalis). These little fellows are very similar, except for their size, but the most striking thing they have in common is the fact that their fur coats change color twice a year; once the shorter days of autumn approach, the chocolate brown…

Preparing for Winter

Written by  |  Wednesday, 16 November 2016 22:46  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
This is a busy time of year for birds and animals. I recently observed some squirrel activity that was really unusual so I wanted to share the little story in case anyone else has observed the same thing. During October we did get some much needed rain and towards the end of the month, fungi of all types were popping up all over. I didn’t realize that squirrels ate some of these fungi until we saw some strange behaviour. At my brother’s cottage, there is a covered deck on which stands a little tree about 3 feet high in a pot. On arriving at their cottage, my brother and his wife noticed the little tree was covered in what appeared to be large mushrooms. They…

A walk in the woods

Written by  |  Thursday, 13 October 2016 01:17  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Now that the heat of summer is finished and summer vacations for a lot of people are over, it’s a nice, quiet time to explore forests and fields. The brown moths that evolved after the forest tent caterpillar invasion have gone into a dormant state or died off but I am concerned that they laid millions of eggs. Perhaps we will have a really cold winter that may destroy some of the eggs at least. I don’t really believe that but one can always hope! After the dry, hot summer I was amazed recently to see an abundance of fungi of various types around our lake property. There had been an overnight rainfall so it was an ideal time to do some fungi exploring. There…

Poisonous Hemlocks

Written by  |  Wednesday, 24 August 2016 23:47  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
We recently had an inquiry from a reader in the Georgian Bay area, who while searching for information on Poisonous Hemlocks, found a column that was published in the News five years ago. He was extremely concerned because he had found plants on his waterfront property that appear to be Spotted Water Hemlocks. Since these weeds can be very toxic, we are running the updated column again. To learn more about these dangerous weeds, there are some great websites you can check out including www.invadingspecies.com There are two species of highly poisonous Hemlock weeds that grow throughout Ontario: Spotted Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) and Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Both are members of the Carrot family, as is Wild Parsnip, and all look similar to Queen…

Mink, Weasel or Marten?

Written by  |  Wednesday, 10 August 2016 17:13  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Mink, weasels and martens are all members of the Mustelidae (Weasel family), which also includes otters, skunks, fishers, ferrets, wolverines and badgers. It can sometimes be difficult to make a definite identification with mink, weasels and martens, in particular, especially if you are a distance away and only get a quick glimpse. There are two main differences to look for – size and colouration. Mink never live far from water - they are a fairly common sight at lakeside homes and cottages, running along the shoreline. In fact, these versatile animals are wide-ranging and can be found anywhere from Florida to the Arctic except in very dry areas. With semi-webbed feet and non-retractable claws, they are great swimmers and tree climbers. Their lustrous fur coat…

Caterpillar Invasion!

Written by  |  Wednesday, 22 June 2016 23:49  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
At our property in North Frontenac, we have been inundated with Forest Tent Caterpillars the past few weeks. In more than 30 years, we have never seen so many caterpillars. Although tent caterpillars can have explosive growth in population every few years, the Forest Tent Caterpillar can be much more numerous. They can defoliate thousands of acres of trees but large outbreaks usually only last for a couple of years and the trees seem to survive by producing a secondary batch of leaves. Few birds prey on caterpillars but there are two species of cuckoos that feast on them. Unfortunately I am not sure whether the cuckoos inhabit areas this far north. I had hoped the caterpillars would be finished by now but, unfortunately, the…

Ticked-off by Ticks!

Written by  |  Wednesday, 01 June 2016 18:30  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Ticks and Lyme disease have been in the news a lot recently. While there is currently much welcome discussion about effective testing and treatments, one thing that needs no debate is that black-legged ticks and Lyme disease are here in the Land O’Lakes. As our climate warms and winters become less severe (remember the balmy +17 degrees last Christmas Eve?), the black-legged tick has been gradually moving north from its principal range in the United States and has brought Lyme disease with it. Both are now permanent residents in our area. Ticks are arachnids, members of the same family as spiders, mites and scorpions. Adult black-legged ticks (also known as deer ticks) are dark, about the size and shape of a sesame seed, and have…

Hello Fiddleheads!

Written by  |  Wednesday, 27 April 2016 19:20  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
Although spring has been more winter-like than spring, fiddleheads will be popping up any day now. Fiddleheads are the tightly coiled fronds of a new fern. The name comes from their resemblance to the curled end of a musical instrument such as a violin or fiddle. The fiddleheads of the Ostrich fern are highly prized and are the only ones that should be eaten. Fiddleheads of other ferns should be avoided because some, such as the Bracken fern, have carcinogens. You will find fiddleheads growing wild in forests (especially in damp areas) and along rivers. The flavour resembles fresh asparagus or mild broccoli. Be careful when picking these ferns (or any wild plant) because you need to leave lots of plant shoots so they can…

Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring!

Written by  |  Wednesday, 20 April 2016 20:49  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
It’s wonderful to hear the songbirds these past few weeks as they’ve arrived back from their winter retreats, although I have felt sorry for them with the colder than normal spring. Worms started to pop through the ground recently, only to dive back in again as the freezing temperatures returned. Trees that were covered in frozen fruit from last year were soon stripped of their berries – apple trees, mountain ash, junipers, etc. by hungry birds. Remember to keep feed in your bird feeders. When they arrive back here from their southern climes, the birds are ravenously hungry and anxious to find a mate and prepare their nests. All this activity requires a lot of energy and food. Once the little hatchlings arrive, the parents…

Mourning Doves

Written by  |  Thursday, 07 April 2016 10:02  |  Published in Outdoors in the Land O' Lakes
The Mourning Dove is easily recognizable with its long, plump, medium-sized body and undersized head. They are an interesting and intelligent bird and are sometimes called Turtle Doves. The body is a grayish light brown colour with a very pale, rosy breast and black spots on its folded wings. The brown colouring on the feathers makes a perfect camouflage, especially on bare ground. A couple of dozen birds huddled together near our home during most evenings this past winter. Their favourite spot at night was some bare ground under our lilac bush, which was not too far from the bird feeder and where they were protected from strong winds and some predators by the board fence. It wasn’t until I used binoculars that I could…
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